Backcountry Day at Luther Pass

Sean and Tom getting ready for the first challenge of the day: surmounting the roadside berm to start heading up the peak!

After six weeks — yes! — of solid high pressure, sun and temperatures in the 50s and 60s, warm moist air and cold air collided over the Sierra Crest … and meant business.

When the 100-mph winds finally died down and the skies cleared, the Tahoe area had received 6 to 8 feet of snow over the course of a week. Apparently this is considered normal around here — several weeks of sun and calm followed by a cycle of storms. Reno got about a foot, being in the weather shadow, so the sagebrush has a pretty dusting, but roads are clear.

waterhouse peak: world-class tree skiing

Earlier-season on the north face of Waterhouse. Can barely see the Mike for the trees.

Once the weather calmed down and the snowpack settled a bit, it was time to get after it and go get some turns.

Mike and I, along with Tom, Sean, and Tom’s pooch Chester, headed south to Luther Pass and Waterhouse Peak, south of Lake Tahoe.

To quote the guidebook,

“Clark Waterhouse looked over much of this area from the Angora fire lookout tower  many years ago. The old-growth trees are sheltered and shaded . . .”

Starting to head up the skin track under the big trees.

We looked forward to skiing among some of the largest trees in the area. The forests around Lake Tahoe had been cut during the Comstock mining boom, but the boom must have busted before anyone made it down to Luther Pass.

We had a blast skiing among comically large red fir, Ponderosa and white pine, mountain hemlock.

After following an existing trail for a short way, it headed off in a direction we didn’t want to take. That meant breaking trail through 2 feet of fluffy snow. The four of us took turns, 15-20 minutes at a time, before stepping aside for a break.

About halfway up the peak, we intersected an existing skin track and there was much rejoicing. The trip to the top continued at a faster pace, and everyone enjoyed well deserved snacks and drinks at the summit!

View from our lunch spot, at about 9400'. Great views of Lake Tahoe to the north!
Chester wallows his way back down, probably wondering about the point of this exercise.

Trailbreaking uphill in deep snow is a lot like work, but the descent more than made up for it. We saw only a few other people that day, which was especially nice. It felt like we almost had the whole mountain to ourselves.

The snow was soft, deep, and untracked — everything you could ask for on a backcountry day. This is why we prefer going uphill under our own power instead of paying to ride the lift at the resort.

Chester had a rough time, though. He tried his best to keep up, but it was exhausting for him because he sank in deep with every step. Tom brought him back to the truck to rest after one run, and we went up for another run.

One thing to watch out for when skiing in thick trees like this is to not get separated from the group. It can be hard to follow tracks if there are others on the slope, and once one is out of earshot, it’s hard to see through the trees, making reuniting difficult to impossible. So one must keep that in mind when skiing with others in the Big Forest!

Mike drops into the trees!

2 thoughts on “Backcountry Day at Luther Pass

  1. WOW!!!! A hell of a lot of snow. Looks like the fotos you see in Travel ads or ski magazines. You guys must really be enjoying the weather you have out in Reno. Even if you do get the occasional 3 to 6 inches of snow in town. Does the city handle the snow well or….? I imagine they do OK being so close to the Sierras.

  2. Thanks. Yes, the Sierra is very photogenic, with the big trees and the sun and the lake. We love the weather. The city handles snow pretty well; they do plow and salt/sand but they also seem to have a strategy of “wait ’til it melts” — since it does melt pretty soon after snow falls. So it can be messy, sometimes. Actually it reminds me a lot of New England — quite gloppy on the roads when it snows.

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